Review: Go Directly to Go

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, January 1998

Review: Go Directly to Go
The modern snowshoe is light, versatile, and ready for action the moment you are

By Andrew Tilin


There's something vaguely puritanical about the way we prepare for our winter fun. We squirm into unyielding downhill boots, laboriously wax cross-country skis, and constantly futz with snowboard bindings, four Phillips heads at a time. Lighting out on snowshoes, in contrast, is an endeavor without strife.

Indeed, its beauty lies in what snowshoes lack: complexity. Keep a set in the trunk and you're ready for a backwoods tromp at the drop of a tuque. There are no high-tech boots or lift tickets to buy, and snowshoes cost half what top-notch skis or snowboards do. Most appealing, however, is that the technique required to be a fabulous shoer is one you mastered at around 18 months of age: walking.

That's not to say you can't do considerably more with modern snowshoes — you can run or scale mountains in them. They're all made with lightweight aluminum or composite frames, metal cleats, and tough synthetic deckings. The bindings accept most footwear. And the designs are fairly timeless, meaning that you'll be perfectly happy using the following nine models a year from now — and a decade from now.

The best criterion for choosing snowshoes is, quite simply, size. The bigger you are, the bigger the platform you'll need to stay aloft. But the relative strengths of each size may also inform your decision. Small shoes are supremely maneuverable, perfect for running or fast day-hiking on packed trails. Mediums provide ample decking to float the extra weight of an overnight load, but they don't feel like clown shoes when you trot. And larges are tailored for buoying big payloads and levitating atop deep, dry powder. As for bindings, a "fixed rotation" construction prevents your tails from dragging and slowing you down as you walk, while "free rotation" versions let your tails tilt with each stride, thus dumping built-up snow. Whichever style you choose, though, you'll spend less time fussing over your equipment and more time using it.

Litespeed Alchemy

What you get in the Alchemy (8 by 25 inches; 2.3 pounds; $299) is original postindustrial art. Its frame is beautifully formed from light, strong carbon fiber. Its asymmetric tail is cut away so that you don't step on your tips. And underneath, the forwardmost claw is set below your toes instead of the ball of your foot, giving you more grab. The jury is still out on whether the perforations in the decking aid floatation by reducing snow compression, but the verdict is in on the strap configuration of the fixed-rotation binding: It's guilty of letting your feet slop a bit from side to side on uneven surfaces.

Atlas 1022

Sheer diminutiveness is bound to make the 1022 ($229) a favorite with most anyone who tries it. Measuring 8 by 22 inches and weighing 3.6 pounds per pair, this aluminum-framed shoe feels like nothing so much as an extension of your foot; it urges you to run, dart around rocks, and hurdle fallen trees. A decking of Hypalon — the same hardy rubberized material used to make whitewater rafts — puts a spring in your step. The supportive binding has nylon straps, soft plastic cuffs, and a padded metal platform that accommodates anything from waterproof running shoes to bulky pac boots. Obviously deep powder is not the 1022's forte, and the fixed-rotation bindings tend to flip snow up your back, but on firmer stuff they're a blast.

Northern Lites Elite

The Elite (8 by 25 inches; two pounds; $235) is the Calista Flockhart of snowshoes: not a gram of excess weight. It's the sort of shoe that, if you could con someone else into breaking trail, you'd want on a slog up to an 11,000-foot pass. Credit the lightweight aluminum alloy of the teardrop frame, the polyurethane-coated nylon decking, and the most convenient binding we've come across: Three infinitely adjustable rubber straps pull over the top of your foot and similarly adjustable nylon webbing secures your heel. The cleats don't bite quite as well as the 1022's, but the fixed-rotation setup isn't as snappy, either, so the tail won't spray you with snow when you run.

MSR Denali

One can certainly take issue with the toyish aesthetics of the Denali. Yet the versatility you get for a song ($110) makes it hard to overlook. It's really three models in one: The 22-inch shoe accommodates optional clip-on "flotation tails" that add either four ($25) or eight ($30) inches. The 8-by-26 configuration is probably most useful, because it remains buoyant in deep powder with a full daypack yet isn't so unwieldy that you can't negotiate tight woods. The Denali's weight (3.6 pounds stripped) and free-rotation binding, however, make it more of a shuffler than a racer. And with a set of steel traction teeth running nearly the length of each snowshoe, it handily wins any traversing contest.

Redfeather Condor 30

Redfeather's 1988 Redtail is considered the progenitor of the modern sporty snowshoe, and for better and for worse, you can see the family resemblance in the updated Condor (9 by 30 inches; 4.5 pounds; $265). On the downside, the Condor forces smaller athletes to take long strides so they don't trample on one broad frame with the other. However, if it doesn't trip you up you'll find it satisfying on long, even-paced excursions: Three plastic straps ratchet comfortably over shoes and boots, and a fixed-rotation binding keeps the shoe from feeling pokey.

Crescent Moon Permagrin 9

The aluminum-framed Permagrin 9 ($229) is game for any conditions. Its light weight (3.1 pounds) and dramatic taper from binding to tail let you streak through meadows of untouched snow, but its maximum width (8.5 inches) and overall length (27 inches) will do the grunt work of transporting, for example, 175 pounds of snowshoer through knee-deep powder. But the Permagrin's most distinguishing feature is its asymmetrical footplate, which matches up to the front half of each shoe, enhancing the fit. Further snugging things up are the binding's forefoot straps, which feel most comfortable, arranged as they are like a Hypalon huarache. The heel strap is plastic with a ratcheting buckle, which is also quite secure and glove-friendly.

Tubbs Expedition Mountain 36

The Expedition Mountain 36 (5.6 pounds; $287) is something of an on-snow semi. The aluminum frame is so long (36 inches) that it tracks arrow-straight through deep snow and so wide (10 inches) that it floats on powder. It's for big folks — or anyone relocating to Ice Station Zebra. The free-rotation binding is a necessity, since it keeps you from having to heft a shovelful of snow with each stride. The rigid plastic straps fasten with handy ratchets. Just beware of crusty conditions: The Expedition's plastic decking will make enough racket that you can forget about spying on foraging moose.

YubaShoes XSV 32

"Fleet-footed" isn't the first description that comes to mind when you see the XSV 32 ($269), which measures 9 by 32 inches and weighs five pounds per pair. Gargantuan as it is, the XSV is easy to operate: The bindings are set off-center, slightly inboard, so you don't have walk bowlegged. Plow uphill to catch a fresh powder run on your boards and you'll also appreciate the metal heel lift, which props up your shoe to reduce calf-strain. The binding tilts slightly to dump snow buildup but not so much that it drags. As for the cleat, it's long and jagged enough to get Stephen King pondering his next plot.

Sherpa Mountain Guide

The Guide (9 by 30 inches; 4.7 pounds; $354) is the ultimate expedition snowshoe. It accommodates only crampon-compatible boots (including telemarking and certain snowboarding models), but if you have the right setup it's quite convenient — and unfailingly dependable. The clever bail binding is both fixed and free, so it sheds heavy snow but doesn't drag in the light stuff. Above all, the Guide is remarkably surefooted, thanks to a set of fangs right under your toes and the retro-style lacing (polyurethane, not rawhide) that lashes the deck to the aluminum frame, which specifically holds the shoes from slipping on packed-down traverses. Put it this way: The name of the company says it all.

Where To Find It
Atlas, 888-482-8527; Crescent Moon, 800-587-7655; Litespeed, 877-748-4808; MSR, 800-877-9677; Northern Lites, 800-360-5483; Redfeather, 800-525-0081; Sherpa, 800-621-2277; Tubbs, 800-882-2748; Yuba Shoes, 800-598-9822.

Andrew Tilin, a former senior editor at Outside, is an avid snowshoer and telemark skier.

Photographs by Clay Ellis

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